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Document and Benefit Fraud

Former traffic court clerk sentenced to 33 months for arranging sham marriages

CHICAGO — A local woman was sentenced Thursday to two years and nine months in federal prison for arranging sham marriages to evade immigration laws, and enabling foreign nationals to illegally become U.S. citizens. This sentence resulted from an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security investigations (HSI).

Maria F. Cruz, 51, formerly of Chicago, was sentenced Jan. 12 by U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan to 33 months in prison. Cruz, a former Cook County traffic court clerk, pleaded guilty on Jan. 18, 2011, to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud.

Cruz is the first of 10 defendants to be sentenced for a marriage fraud conspiracy that recruited U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, primarily Filipinos, to enter into 27 sham marriages to evade immigration laws.

Between July 2003 and October 2009, Cruz paid fees for referrals of U.S. citizens who were willing to enter into fraudulent marriages with foreign nationals. As part of the deception, she drove the individuals to weddings, and took photos so they could be used as evidence that the sham marriages were legitimate. She also advised them of steps they needed to take to make their marriages appear legitimate.

The foreign nationals paid Cruz about $3,000 to arrange for them to fraudulently marry U.S. citizens. Cruz promised the U.S. citizens financial incentives for marrying a foreign national. The foreign national paid the U.S. citizen about $3,000 after the marriage, and about $300 to $350 every month until the foreign national obtained U.S. citizenship.

Foreign nationals who marry U.S. citizens legitimately may be eligible to become U.S. permanent residents, but not if the marriage was a sham solely to evade immigration laws.

"Cruz conspired with others to circumvent and exploit our nation's immigration laws," said Gary Hartwig, special agent in charge of the ICE HSI office in Chicago. "To protect the integrity of this country's immigration system, ICE HSI will go to great lengths to aggressively investigate any illegal shortcuts to citizenship."

ICE was assisted in the investigation by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) program.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Yonan, Northern District of Illinois, prosecuted the case.